Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson

Sam Raimi

Writing credits: Alvin Sargent, David Koepp, Sam Raimi, Scott Rosenberg, Neil Ruttenberg
Distributor: Columbia Tristar * 121 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for stylized violence and action

I work with a very nice, rather spectacular-looking young woman who is Looking for Mr. Right, but never seems able to find him. I suspect this is because she's looking for some wedge-shaped chiseled hunk in an expensive suit; when in all likelihood, some dorky-looking guy with an equally dorky name, like, well, oh, let's just say Peter Parker, has been longing for her for years, but doesn't know how to tell her. Somewhere, this guy is sitting hunched over a computer keyboard, pouring out his soul in a screenplay or a novel, which starts out, "This story, like any story worth telling, is about a girl"....

...which is how Sam Raimi's long-awaited SPIDER-MAN begins. Every American male now alive who is between the ages of five and fifty has been waiting all his life for this film. And as with any much-loved source work (see also: HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE and LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING), a director handling these sacred tomes has two choices: adhere slavishly to the original work, and risk being slammed by critics for being "too careful", or use the source work as a springboard, in which case the result will be years of messageboard postings by disgruntled fanboys, picking apart the minutiae of where the film deviates from Stan Lee's comic book.

For those of you who aren't American males between the ages of five and fifty, the premise is this: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), an adolescent geek living with his doting aunt and uncle, is bitten by a spider (in the comic book it was radioactive; in the film it's genetically altered) and develops superpowers. He's now bulked up, he no longer needs Dr. Dello Russo's Lasix surgery so he can dump his glasses, his hands grow little spines so he can stick to anything, and in true teenage fashion he has developed this strange ability to spew viscous substances out of an appendage (his hands, you of the filthy minds). He becomes Spider-Man, and embarks a career of fighting bad guys. Parker, in true Charlie Brown fashion, has been infatuated with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), his flame-haired neighbor, since the fourth grade. Lacking the nerve to make a move, he admires her from afar, to the bemusement of his best bud Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose father Norman is a scientist developing performance enhancing substances (!) for the government. Harry isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and shows signs of having issues with his father's warm relationship with the scientifically-inclined Peter. This relationship takes a turn when Norman, high on his own supply, turns into the evil Green Goblin and attempts to recruit Spider-Man into a life of crime.

Sam Raimi's comic book come to life will inevitably be compared with Richard Donner 's SUPERMAN and Tim Burton's BATMAN, and while these superhero stories have common themes running through them, SPIDER-MAN's tone is neither SUPERMAN's wry campiness nor BATMAN's heavy, Teutonic, operatic grandeur. The theme of loss, particularly parental loss, is a constant in these characters; with a desire to avenge the parental deaths a common motivating factor. But while Superman is a superhero trying to hide behind his wussy Clark Kent alter-ego, and Batman a tortured, complex man hiding behind a costume, Spider-Man/Peter is a wuss still trying on his powers for size. He resonates powerfully because he's everyteen.

As such, Raimi's casting of Tobey Maguire seems not only inspired, but inevitable. A tremendously talented, meticulous actor with a ton of indie cred behinid him, Maguire was not the first choice of a studio bent on casting one of the Usual Suspects. But Raimi understood Stan Lee's character, and insisted on Maguire, whose presence lends a richness and -- dare I say it -- gravitas to what is still at its core a comic book. Maguire's shy, slightly popeyed dorkiness, seasoned with a soupcon of ironic snarkiness, is perfect for the role of a boy whose destiny changes overnight. And Maguire handles this transition with deft subtlety, as Peter graduates from saving Mary Jane from an embarrassing fall in the school cafeteria, to defending himself in a school fight, to trying out his newfound powers by leaping from building to building and gaining control of his web shooters (which have transformed from a mechanical invention in the comic book to a rather less-than-subtle metaphor for other bodily fluids that tend to spew unexpectedly from the body average adolescent male), and ultimately to full recognition of the responsibility and burden his powers come to represent.

Because this is Maguire's film, there's not a whole lot for the other fine actors to do. Kirsten Dunst needs merely to be the girl next door, albeit one from an abusive family with a head full of dreams and not many prospects. Nevertheless, she makes the most of her screen time, and has a lovely friendly chemistry with Maguire. As Peter's friend Harry, James Franco, he of the gaunt cheekbones and congenital sullenness, who made such a huge splash as James Dean in a made-for-television film last year, tones down the charismatic part of his brooding charisma, receding into mere brooding, not allowing his matinee-idol looks to overshadow the film's hero.

Yet one supporting cast member utterly steals the show. J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson is the one character who truly looks like a comic book character, indeed, like his own comic book character. Simmons has done some terrific theatre work and is often seen in small character roles, but here he nearly walks away with the picture during his ten minutes of screen time. SPIDER-MAN has an odd time sense about it -- the dialogue is early 1960s and the setting is contemporary. But the scenes at Jameson's Daily Bugle are right out of a 1930'S Preston Sturges movie; or perhaps even a parody of a Preston Sturges movie like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Just when the story threatens to become too earnest, Simmons returns it to its comic-book roots.

The weak casting link is Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. Dafoe is certainly scary-looking and sinister enough, and as Norman Osborn, he's as chilling a comic book bad guy as you're ever likely to see. The problem is that as the Green Goblin, he has to hide his natural creepiness behind a clunky armor-like costume and a completely immobile mask. Maguire's Peter Parker/Spiderman is so human a hero that the Green Goblin plays like Robo-cop by comparison. It's not so bad when Parker and Osborn circle each other like wary dogs as each becomes gradually aware of the other's alter-ego, but because the characterizations and dialogue otherwise so strongly transcend what this film is, the superhero interactions play like something out of Saturday morning television.

One would expect the flying effects in a film with this sort of budget to be spectacular, but it's the "superhero" antics that fall short of expectations. The Big Climactic Confrontation in Times Square looks obviously cobbled together in a hurry as a re-shoot after the World Trade Center collapse made the original locale unfeasible. Spider-Man's flights lack the stomach-churning swoop they should have. What's amazing about SPIDER-MAN, however, is that you don't care, because Raimi's direction and Maguire's solidly-anchored central character are so strong and so real and so plausible that this most comic book of comic book movies becomes something more. Indeed, when Peter, having finally won the heart of Mary Jane Watson, must spurn her affections because "This is my destiny...and my curse...", you half expect him to say, "Here's looking at you, kid."

Not too shabby for a comic book.


- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 1999 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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